Nels Cline – Dirty Baby (2010)

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by Mark Saleski

You’ll often find writing about music and art that separates the two things: music – art. We can all agree that music is an art form and that musicians are (or at least can be) artists. But what about the relationship between music and art? There has been plenty of music inspired by art, from Gunther Schuller (Paul Klee) to Don McLean (Van Gogh) to Tom Waits (Edward Hopper), but do the two forms have an intimate connection?

With his latest project, a collaboration with poet/producer David Breskin, we are gifted with an answer of sorts – we see how Cline’s musical abstractions were guided by equally abstract and conceptual visual art. Breskin selected 66 Edward Ruscha images, all from the lesser-known parts of the artist’s catalog. The images were split into two equally-sized groups. The only “rules” presented to Cline were to create one long, cohesive composition for the first group and 33 short (a minute or less) pieces for the second.

The first 33 Ruscha images are his “silhouettes,” and taken in sequence the story told seems to be of the discovering, settling, and un-settling of America. Cline’s music (Side A) doesn’t really follow this story in a linear fashion, though the alternating acoustic (peaceful) and electric (chaotic) passages do evoke that kind of a story line, however disjointed. I’m not sure where we were in our history, but by the time we reach “Part V”, a monstrous & insistent groove has overtaken us. Beginning with guest Jon Brion’s circular patterns on the analog synth, the music is a smart update on the Miles Davis of the Bitches Brew era. Before Side A ends, we enter a frightening and brooding soundscape before returning to the relative quiet of the circular acoustic patterns that close out the set. A note of optimism? Maybe.

The second disc (Side B), takes on Ruscha’s Cityscapes. Being his most abstract works (text being represented by blocks of color), Cline was inspired by the art’s austerity and by the evocative titles. Reading like fragments from a film-noire script (“Your A Dead Man,” “You Talk You Get Killed,” “Don’t Threaten Me With Your Threats,” “You Wont Know WHEN You Wont Know WHERE You Wont Know WHO You Wont Know WHY”), Cline was freed to build tension by constructing a John Zorn-esque collision of styles: surf, hard rock, blues, noise, grindcore, and jazz. The use of dynamics is a beautiful thing, elevating the collection far above a simple mash-up.

So do visual art and music have an intimate connection. Though it’s unlikely that we can get to a universal answer, it’s obvious, given projects such as Dirty Baby, that the inspiration can be mutual.

The Dirty Baby box set, complete with two booklets of Edward Ruscha artwork, will be released on October 12th, 2010 on Cryptogramophone Records.

This review was first printed by The Glass Museum.

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